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How many animals have died in Australia's wildfires?

A professor estimated this week that a billion animals had died in Australia's wildfires. But where are these numbers coming from?

By Mihir Zaveri and Emily S. Rueb
Published: Jan 13, 2020

How many animals have died in Australia's wildfires?A malnourished wild horse known in Australia as a "Brumby” in Australia's Bago State Forest near Bago on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. The forest was decimated by the the Dunns Road wildfire. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)

Some 25,000 koalas feared dead on an island being consumed by flames. Ten thousand feral camels expected to be shot and killed. And claims that a whopping one billion animals estimated to have perished across Australia.

These are a few of the numbers that have emerged in recent days to capture the toll of the extreme heat and raging fires on Australian animal life. They add to the already staggering scope of the fires, which have killed at least 24 people, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and scorched more than 15 million acres.

The figures tallying the mass death of Australian critters have ricocheted around the internet, causing apprehension and grief.

Experts in biodiversity have expressed alarm at the span of scorched earth in a megadiverse country that harbors between 600,000 to 700,000 species, many which are not found anywhere else in the world.

Kate Umbers, a biologist at Western Sydney University who studies the Australian alpine grasshopper, is especially worried about the fate of the nation’s 250,000 insect species, of which only about one-third have been named.

The current fire season is “deeply, deeply troubling — far worse than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life,” she told The New York Times this week. “It’s really quite frightening in an ecological sense.”

But while they have raised alarm about the scale of destruction, in nearly every case, experts cautioned that it was still impossible to know exactly how many animals have died. Many of the estimates grabbing headlines rely on assumptions about existing population sizes and the effect of natural disasters on them. And they do not give credit to animals’ survival instinct. Some experts have cast doubt on the idea that numbers are even helpful at all.

So can you feel sad? Of course. But there is always more to the story.

Will 10,000 camels be killed?
That’s the plan, yes. But it’s not because of the fires.

Officials in Australia drew international headlines this week when they said they planned to cull up to 10,000 feral camels after many of the animals, tormented by the drought and extreme heat, have increasingly emerged out of the arid desert to raid local communities for food and water.

The aboriginal communities that live in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands in the far northwest of South Australia, also known as APY, said the camels (and some feral horses) were damaging homes and other community infrastructure.

“We have been stuck in stinking hot and uncomfortable conditions, feeling unwell, because all the camels are coming in and knocking down fences, getting in around the houses and trying to get to water through air-conditioners,” Marita Baker, an executive board member for APY, said in a statement Tuesday. “They are roaming the streets looking for water. We are worried about the safety of the young children; they think it is fun to chase the camels but it is of course very dangerous.”

The country has been grappling for years with a ballooning feral camel population that crowds out native species, tramples foliage and damages property. Today the camels number more than 1 million, and the government estimates the population will double every nine years or so.

The camels are routinely killed to manage the population’s numbers. In 2010, the federal government planned to cull some 670,000 feral camels over four years, The New York Times reported.

A cull of 10,000 may not have a significant effect.

“This will alleviate short-term water-searching behavior for about a season or so,” said Corey Bradshaw, a fellow in ecology at Flinders University in Adelaide. “But when conditions improve, they’ll build up their numbers pretty fast. They’re good producers.”

How many animals have died in Australia's wildfires?The Dunns Road Fire near Maragle, Australia on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. The relentlessness of the blazes is increasingly pushing Australia beyond crisis mode into anger and fatigue. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)

Have 25,000 koalas really died?
Possibly. That number seems to have come from Sam Mitchell, the co-owner of the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park in Duncan.

Experts have worried about the devastation from fire on Kangaroo Island, in South Australia.

In an interview with The Guardian, Mitchell estimated that the total koala population before the fires could have been as high as 50,000.

He said “probably more than half” of the island’s koalas could have perished in the fires, but that it was “a guessing game.”

Koalas were not the only victims on the island.

There were worries, too, about the fate of a subspecies of glossy black cockatoos, of which there were only about 300 to 370 remaining on the island before the fires.

Australia’s koalas — cute, fuzzy and largely defenseless in the face of natural disaster — often grab headlines. In November, after another devastating fire, a widely circulated claim that the species was left “functionally extinct” was met with pushback when some scientists warned that exaggeration about their fate could hurt, rather than help, conservation efforts.

Along parts of the coastline of New South Wales, where brush fires have ravaged the koalas’ habitat, one estimate said that up to 30% of the population had died, Sussan Ley, the federal environment minister, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Friday.

“We’ll know more when the fires are calmed down,” she added.

Have more than 1 billion animals perished?
It’s a widely shared estimate, but one that has not gone unchallenged.

Recently, professor Christopher Dickman of the University of Sydney said he calculated that 480 million animals — nearly half a billion — might have been killed in New South Wales, which encompasses Sydney. Headlines soon followed.

As the fires raged on, Dickman revised that estimate this week to more than 800 million killed in New South Wales, adding that he figured more than 1 billion had died across the country.

“It’s events like this that may well hasten the extinction process for a range of other species,” Dickman said in an interview with NPR. “So, it’s a very sad time.”

To reach that number, Dickman relied on measures from a 2007 report for the World Wide Fund for Nature about the effect of land clearing on Australian wildlife, the university said.

But other experts have pushed back on the estimates.

Colin Beale, an ecologist from University of York, told the BBC that animals’ survival instincts kick in.

“In the areas of Africa where I work, I am quite sure that very few birds die as a direct result of fire,” he said. “They certainly have the ability to fly away from fires, and this is surely the case in Australia, too.”

Bradshaw at Flinders University in Adelaide said it was dangerous to share blanket numbers that were not based on evidence.

“We’re not saying the number is wrong — it’s inestimable,” he said. “The media and the public in general are hungry for numbers, and they get into a fuss, but the reality is no one actually knows.”

Animals can and do rebound from such devastation, he added.

“We are constantly surprised how recovery happens quickly after a fire and how many animals survive,” he said

©2019 New York Times News Service